Th. Rothstein March 1900

The War and Democracy

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. IV No. 3 March, 1900, pp. 71-73;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.

If on the Dreyfus case a difference of opinion might have been with some plausibility maintained, there would seem to be absolutely no ground, short of pecuniary interest, for such a difference with regard to the present war. Either you have a stake in the South African gold industry, and then you are for the war; or you have no such stake, and then you are against it. A third attitude would seem to be impossible, seeing how absolutely iniquitous in every imaginable respect is the attempt of the British Government to crush the freedom and independence of the two Republics. Yet what a confusion of ideas we see in the minds of the people on all hands – a confusion which has even made its way into our own ranks! Some defend the war absolutely and unconditionally from its very beginning up to the last. Others regard it as unjust per se, yet calling for our sympathy on higher patriotic grounds, whilst the third condemn it right through as a criminal enterprise started and carried on in the interests of a group of financiers, but still wish it success for the sake of democracy and political liberty. This latter attitude forms the undertone of many otherwise sincere attacks on the present British policy; it makes itself, to a certain extent and with certain qualifications, heard even in some speeches and articles of well-known Socialists, such as for instance, in that of Headingley in a recent issue of Justice. It is, therefore, more than necessary to show its utter untenableness, lest by its seeming progressivism it entices us into a justification of what is otherwise unjustifiable.

To be brief, the argument is as follows: England, with her colonies, has been and still is the most progressive country in the world. Whatever her shortcomings in this or other respects, she always stood for democracy and political freedom, showing a bold and effective front to the reactionary forces in the world of international politics – to the aggressive despotism of Russia in particular – and serving by her example, active sympathy, and right of asylum as a great encouragement to those who struggle for liberty in other lands. The present unfortunate course of the war is, therefore, to be greatly lamented, if but for the reason that it has lowered the material and moral prestige of England, and has thus weakened the most progressive factor in contemporary history. Were it, however, to end in England’s defeat, and, what is under the circumstances a possible contingency, in the loss of South Africa and other colonies, the harm done to the cause of freedom all over the world would be incalculable. The agencies that work for democracy would be reduced to a state of impotence, the reactionary forces of Russia and Germany would gain ascendancy both in Europe and elsewhere, and the normal and peaceful development of civilised mankind towards political and economic emancipation would be set back for at least half a century. We must, therefore, regardless of all other considerations, wish for English success.

So runs the argument, and much common-sense and true progressivism seem to be at the back of it. However, let us look at the matter closely.

I shall not speak of the glaring contradiction, both in conception and in fact, under which the argument labours – viz., that of the cause of Democracy and Freedom being promoted, or even maintained, by crime and conquest. Nor shall I speak of the remarkable conclusions to which it logically leads, namely, that any buccaneering and liberty-extinguishing enterprise of a democratic country is to be justified and supported on the ground that its failure would mean a shifting of the political balance to the side of reaction. That would justify the conquest of Turkey by Russia, of Russia by Austria, of Austria by Germany, and of all of them by France or England, which is prima facie absurd. I shall confine myself to the particular case in point and see whether the argument does not contain some fallacy in its premises.

A glance at the latter will prove that this is precisely the case, that the argument illogically fallacious. It treats the present war incidentally, instead of symptomatically, and without paying so much as a single thought to the question whether it may not be a legitimate result of the past history of England, a mere, so to say, breaking out in an acute and visible form of a disease that has been gnawing at the vitals of the body politic for a long time, it regards it in the light of a passing accident which may certainly have some bad consequences, but has been brought about by a mere concurrence of exterior circumstances. And this is as erroneous a view as can possibly be conceived. The present war, so far from reducing the influence for progress which England has hitherto exercised in the world, is in itself but a product of the growth of reaction in this country for the last twenty-five years or so. From the beginning of the seventies the English middle-classes, which were the custodians of liberal traditions and principles since the beginning of the century, have been drifting more and more into a retrograde policy. They have fulfilled their historical mission of freeing English society from the last economic and juristic trammels of feudal landlordism, and their position under the pressure of bourgeois industrial competition grew more and more precarious. They were unable any longer to afford that generosity of action which distinguished their policy at home and, to a still greater extent, abroad, and with every year their thoughts began to turn more and more decisively to other methods of self-entrenchment than those of the old Radical school. It would be impossible to elaborate here the point in detail, I might do it on some more suitable occasion; but the most glaring of those methods, if not exactly the most efficacious, was and is the banding together of England and her colonies into one gigantic empire for the purposes of industrial self-defence and aggression. Those who have read the first volume of Paine’s “Origines” might remember the stirring pages about the revolutionary idea of eighteenth-century France being merrily handled about, like some pretty toy or doll, by all classes of society, including those who stood round the throne. It was played with in all philosophical and political circles, fallen in love with in the fashionable saloons of the aristocracy, dressed in bright colours, adorned with ribbons and sparkling jewels – and all in innocent ignorance that out of this pretty thing a monster is growing that will devour them all. Similarly with the imperialistic idea of England at the end of the nineteenth century. Hatched out by Beaconsfield, it soon found its way into all classes of the community, and became a favourite pet with the politician and fashionable lady, financier and workman, reactionary and reformer. It passed from hand to hand with a joyous swiftness, evoking peals of laughter and admiration and growing in definiteness with every turn of the ring. What fancy dresses, what sweet nicknacks has it not become possessed of under the loving caresses of its admirers. Ah, these admirers did not know that they are breeding a monster, that that little innocent-looking thing is going to devour them. They thought they would just play with it and leave it. But no. It grew big and strong, and, shaking off the ridiculous drapings in which it had been clad, appeared before their eyes in all its hideous reality. People now recoil at sight of it. “We did not mean that, we meant quite another thing,” they say. It is too late. You have said A and you are bound to go right through the alphabet up to X Y Z. The seed has been thrown, but instead of rooting it out you spent on it the best labour and sunshine you could command – and now you have to reap what has been sown.

It is, therefore, idle to say that the present war, if unhappily ended, portends reaction. It would portend reaction were it ever so successfully carried out and terminated, because it is itself the outcome of reaction. Do not, consequently, say that the war is lamentable from the democratic standpoint; reaction would have set in all the same even were there no war, only it would have moved, perhaps, more slowly.

I will, however, go further, and at a risk of being called a foreigner who cannot feel sympathy with the English, say, rather than be successful and give additional glamour to Imperialism, may the war end in the loss of South Africa and of the whole of the so-called Empire. For who would lose by it? The colonies – Canada, Australia, South Africa or India? But the first two can very well do without an English governor, whilst the latter, too, will only gain by getting rid of a terrible incubus. Or is it England? But apart from the lustre which possessions in every part of the globe shed on this country, and which we Socialists, at least, ought to value at its real worth, there is absolutely no material advantage, short of exploiting India and some parts of Africa for the benefit of a handful of shareholders, which England gains from her colonies and which she would not gain were they independent States. Who, then, would be the loser? It is time to recognise that England’s greatness and might lie not in her colonial possessions, but in these very islands, with their enormous material wealth and moral stamina of the people. It is the English shipping, engineering, cotton, wool and coal, coupled with her literature, science, art and political and municipal institutions that have made her great, and all this would remain and, perhaps, receive a further stimulus were she to lose her colonies this very day. And the gains? The gains would be that she would once for all get rid of the imperialistic nightmare that has been sapping the very marrow of her bones. Freed from the most pernicious of red herrings that has ever been trailed across its path, the democracy of England will receive a new impetus and will then really be in a position to head the movement for progress and liberty all the world over.